When he reprised his big-screen Mars Blackmon character in a made-for-television role, Spike Lee birthed the phrase that became synonymous with sneaker greatness.
“It’s gotta be the shoes.”
The five words became marketing gold in 1988, thanks to a series of popular Nike-branded commercials starring Lee and the company’s most famous pitchman, Michael Jordan.
But nearly 30 years after the advertising campaign launched, and after it was brought back to life by the athletic shoe giant in 2017, Nike found itself in the crosshairs on Wednesday night after heralded Duke freshman Zion Williamson experienced a blowout during the first minute of the Blue Devils’ nationally televised game against archrival North Carolina.
And suddenly, a question arose.
Does it gotta be the shoes?
Williamson, widely projected to be the top pick in this year’s NBA Draft, sustained a mild knee sprain when he slipped on the Cameron Indoor Stadium court named for his coach just 33 seconds into the No. 1-ranked Blue Devils’ 88-72 loss to the Tar Heels.
Replays of Williamson’s injury and simultaneous shoe explosion instantly went viral. And with as much attention as the knee injury that will sideline Williamson indefinitely garnered, the 6-foot-7 superstar’s swoosh-branded wardrobe malfunction immediately became a story.
Former President Barack Obama, who was seated behind the Duke bench, was shown on ESPN’s broadcast reacting to Williamson’s injury by pointing and saying, “His shoe broke.”
Williamson was wearing Nike’s PG 2.5, which retails for $110. The shoe was designed for Oklahoma City Thunder star forward Paul George, who has a $5.5 million shoe deal with Nike, which will be a major player in the crowded competition to ink Williamson to an apparel contract once he declares for the NBA Draft.
Images of Williamson’s discarded sneakers sitting underneath his chair on the Duke bench were shown repeatedly after Williamson left the floor, and the school announced he would not return. The reaction to Williamson’s injury and his shoe blowout came at a fast and furious pace.
In a since-deleted tweet, Puma—which has seen a stock increase of 28% over the past year (compared with a 27% jump at Nike)—took a social media jab its competitor by writing that the blowout “wouldn’t have happened in the pumas.”
As social media exploded, Nike, which has outfitted Duke’s athletic teams since 2003 and is under contract to do so until 2027, was forced to respond to the firestorm that had quickly escalated.
“We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery,” the Beaverton, Oregon-based manufacturer said in a statement issued to multiple media outlets Wednesday night, including The Sporting News. “The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”
Despite the finger-pointing that has been directed at Nike in the hours since Williamson’s injury, industry experts don’t expect the company to suffer long-term damage to its brand. Nike holds lucrative shoe dealswith many of college basketball’s biggest programs, including Duke, which extended its contract with Nike for 10 years in 2017. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the manufacturer has a $173.8 million deal in place at Michigan.
“I think at the end of the day, it’s really more embarrassing than anything else,” Matt Powell, a vice president and senior industry adviser for the NPD Group, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “This is not the first time we’ve had an athletic shoe break down during play. Maybe this one was a little more visible because of the stature of the player involved, and of course, social media is quick to jump on these things, but I don’t see this having a material impact on Nike’s business.”
According to published reports, Nike’s shares were 1.87% lower in pre-market trading on Thursday, which represents an opening bell price of $83.25 per share. The dip would trim the stock’s three-month gain to around 15% and value the shoe company at $132 billion.
Although shoe breakdowns of this nature don’t occur frequently, as Nike noted in its statement, Powell was quick to point out that Nike isn’t the first sneaker manufacturer to experience a shoe malfunction.
“It can certainly happen to anybody,” he said.
However, given how many viewers witnessed Williamson’s injury and the talented phenom’s high-profile standing on the college basketball landscape, Nike will likely continue to be the target of public ridicule for some time, Powell said.
The possible damage to Nike’s brand, however, will most likely be limited in scope, Powell said. That only changes if Williamson’s injury is more serious than originally believed. In his postgame press conference, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said that Williamson’s knee was stable but that there was no timetable for his return. But should the injury prove more serious than expected and end up impacting Williamson’s draft stock, the blow to Nike’s bottom line could be more substantial, Powell said.
“The one wild card we don’t know is if he’s really hurt. Is there some permanent damage? Or is this really a mild sprain as it’s been described?” Powell said. “If it turns out he’s really injured here and it affects his career, I think the story will go on for a while longer, but again, I don’t expect it to have a real impact on Nike’s business.”
Powell added, “I think the story goes away pretty quickly.”
Whether Williamson sticks with Nike moving forward remains to be seen. The company currently has current a host of NBA stars in its stable of clients including LeBron James ($32 million), Kevin Durant ($25 million) and Kyrie Irving ($8 million).
But Wednesday’s shoe mishap likely won’t impact Williamson’s sneaker choice as he looks ahead to his NBA career, especially if Nike makes a lucrative enough offer to a basketball star with an impressive audience (219,000 Twitter followers) and massive marketing upside. In the end, Powell said, the decision of which sneaker Williamson wears during his NBA career comes down to a different twist on Nike’s campaign.
It’s gotta be the money.
“While, yeah, there’s some loyalty and certainly there’s a relationship (with Nike) that’s been built, at the end of the day, it’s about who’s going to write the biggest check,” Powell said. “I don’t think (Wednesday’s injury) has a negative impact on where he signs. … I think it will come down to who’s willing to pay him the most money.”